There’s a new dog in town, and she’s already winning hearts everywhere she goes.
Shenzi is the newest addition to the Mid-Plains Community College family. The black lab puppy will serve as MPCC’s professional therapy dog. Her work will officially begin when students return to school in August.
“She’s just a really sweet, sweet kind soul,” said Shenzi’s owner, Holly Andrews. “I’m looking forward to introducing her at all of our campus locations.”
Shenzi takes over the role that had belonged to Nestle, MPCC’s therapy dog for the past five years. Nestle, who was also owned by Andrews, lost a battle with cancer in January.
Shortly thereafter, Andrews was contacted by NOAH’s Dogs of Nebraska. The Louisville-based not-for-profit organization uses specially trained dogs to help people in need who are going through a personal tragedy, natural disaster or loss.
“Nestle and I had done some work with the organization,” Andrews said. “When members found out Nestle had passed, they reached out to me. They already had a successor dog in mind.”
It wasn’t Shenzi.
Instead, it was a German shepherd in training at Paws In Hand Canine Consulting, headquartered in Pilot Point, Texas.
“The shepherd came highly recommended by Dexter Morin, one of the primary trainers at Paws In Hand,” said Andrews. “So initially, I made the decision to go look at the shepherd. Then, on my way there, Dexter sent me a picture of a black lab and said, ‘Now you have two choices.’”
The black lab was Shenzi. Dexter had rescued her from a shelter in Denton, Texas, where she had been placed after she was found roaming the streets.
“At that time, she was severely malnourished,” Andrews said. “The shelter staff thought she was a year old, but she only weighed about 30 pounds so it was hard to gauge her actual age. We now think she is around 8 months. She’s filled out a lot, but is always going to be small. She still has that goofy, clumsy, teenage thing going on that young dogs tend to have.”
Although Andrews worked with both Shenzi and the shepherd in Texas, it was Shenzi who bonded with her right away.
“Shenzi came up to me the minute she saw me and laid her head in my lap,” Andrews said. “Both are amazing dogs, but Shenzi is the better fit for me and for the kind of work she will be expected to do.”
Because Shenzi was pulled from the shelter the end of March, she only had about eight weeks of training before Andrews met her.
“Therapy dogs typically need six to 12 months of training, depending on the dog,” said Andrews. “That consists of basic obedience training and desensitizing to noises, smells and sounds. The goal is to make sure the dog doesn’t react to a lot of normal, everyday things.”
Andrews is currently “finishing” Shenzi. She’s spent the past six weeks walking her around the north and south campuses in North Platte, where Shenzi will be based.
“She’s shy,” Andrews said. “I’m working on giving her the confidence to walk the halls and greet people and on making her comfortable so she’s not afraid. She’s really the opposite of Nestle. Nestle was 100 percent trained when I got her, and she gave me confidence. Now I have to be the one to give that confidence to Shenzi.”
Shenzi’s job at Mid-Plains will be to serve as a stress reliever and source of comfort for students, faculty and staff.
“We are a small, rural school,” said Andrews. “We have a lot of students who come here, and, for the first time in their lives, they don’t have an animal. The hope is that by interacting with Shenzi, they can feel more at home.”
Andrews has also gone through basic FEMA certification and training for psychological first aid.
“I’m not a therapist,” Andrews said. “I can’t solve problems, and neither can Shenzi, but maybe we can help calm people down, if needed, and refer them to someone else.”
Andrews and Shenzi will be either in the Learning Commons on the college’s south campus in North Platte or walking the halls. They will also be on the McCook campus one day every other week and at campuses in Broken Bow, Imperial, Ogallala and Valentine this fall.